An enhanced ability to detect visual targets amongst distractors, known as visual search (VS), has often been documented in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Yet, it is unclear when this behaviour emerges in development and if it is specific to ASD. We followed up infants at high and low familial risk for ASD to investigate how early VS abilities links to later ASD diagnosis, the potential underlying mechanisms of this association and the specificity of superior VS to ASD. Clinical diagnosis of ASD as well as dimensional measures of ASD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety symptoms were ascertained at 3 years. At 9 and 15 months, but not at age 2 years, high-risk children who later met clinical criteria for ASD (HR-ASD) had better VS performance than those without later diagnosis and low-risk controls. Although HR-ASD children were also more attentive to the task at 9 months, this did not explain search performance. Superior VS specifically predicted 3 year-old ASD but not ADHD or anxiety symptoms. Our results demonstrate that atypical perception and core ASD symptoms of social interaction and communication are closely and selectively associated during early development, and suggest causal links between perceptual and social features of ASD.
- Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity/diagnosis
- Autism Spectrum Disorder/diagnosis
- Child, Preschool
- Vision, Ocular/physiology